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Study finds cultural inclusion key for remote Indigenous students  

[by Jessica Evans]

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Felicia Foxx and Garra Mundine. Image: supplied

For Garra Mundine, a proud Wiradjuri, Bundjulung, Kamilaroi and Yuin woman from Dubbo NSW, body image concerns were something that started when she left her community to attend school in Sydney.

Back home with her family and surrounded by culture, Garra never took much notice of her body image. However, at the age of 11 after moving to Sydney, she began to feel her body was different.

“In the city, I suddenly became a part of a very multicultural community. A lot of my friends were of Asian, Irish, and Italian heritage. As teenage girls, they naturally had skinny bodies that fit European beauty standards. I noticed that my body wasn't like that and I really struggled because I wanted to fit in.”

According to national eating disorder and body image charity the Butterfly Foundation, almost one in ten Australians will at some stage experience an eating disorder.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience body image issues at similar rates to other people in Australia, with 30% of young people—including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people – saying they’re very concerned about their body image.

After her move, Garra found herself becoming incredibly self-conscious. “I was always trying to find ways to lose weight and fit in to smaller sizes. The fashion at the time was all about crop tops and looking small. And I just wasn't that girl. I would specifically buy clothes that were too small, and I would try and get myself as small as possible to fit these beauty standards.

“I would often just stand in front of the mirror for hours critiquing every part of my body just because everything felt wrong, nothing looked right.”

Garra’s physical and mental wellbeing began to suffer, and without realising what was happening, she began to develop an eating disorder.

“Eating disorders were never really spoken about in my community. So, I very much felt like I was on my own. I knew my Mum was concerned and she had spoken to family members about the fact that I was losing a lot of weight and becoming very thin.”

But it was clear that in Garra’s community, “health was less of a priority than looking good.

“Most of the time people would say ‘Wow, you look amazing! You're so thin. You look great’. It was never, ‘You really need to eat something and take care of yourself’."

Something was wrong, but Garra felt that no one, especially her family or friends, would take her problem seriously and that it was most likely an issue she would have to deal with on her own. A sentiment that Butterfly Foundation says is all too common in people experiencing an eating disorder. 

When she spoke to her friends, they were sympathetic, but Garra still felt that she was ‘different’ because her body didn’t fit the European beauty standards many of her friends did.

And with her family experiencing a challenging time at the height of her eating disorder and feeling as though they didn’t have the time or energy to help, Garra continued to suffer in silence.

It was only when she escaped the city and moved to Canberra for university that she started to get better. “Starting fresh really helped me. I went on a journey of finding things that were healthy for me; exercising more and learning how to eat healthy.”

But it was finding friends that understood her and that she could identify with, that made the world of difference to her recovery.

“My friends at university, who all come from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds, understood we didn't fit European beauty standards, and that even Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, within ourselves, have very different body types."

“I really began to accept myself. I stopped dying my hair blonde and straightening it every day. I started to embrace my curves and find outfits that suited my body type, and learnt to accept me for who I am.”

That’s not to say there haven’t been bumps in the road.

After Garra’s Mum was tragically diagnosed with cancer twice, she experienced a differing eating disorder presentation and found herself on the other end of the spectrum and finding comfort in food.

Garra also experienced significant barriers in her journey to receiving support. “I couldn't find anything. I went to an Aboriginal health service, but the doctor wasn't Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, and I felt that she was not empathetic to my situation at all. That experience definitely scared me away from looking for professional help.”

“If there was support that was culturally safe at the time, I would have definitely taken it up.”

Garra doesn’t let this define her story of recovery though. She is now on a journey to finding a healthy balance and receiving professional support from a doctor who has been ‘amazingly empathetic’ to her situation.

“Recovery is an ongoing thing that you need to work at every single day. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel, it does get easier and it's all about embracing yourself. Learning that you're not going to fit into this perfect box and you're not meant to. You've just got to be you.”

Garra, along with Felicia Foxx, is also the face of the Butterfly Foundation’s new #EveryBODYIsDeadly campaign, that encourages mob to have a yarn about body image and reach out to Butterfly for culturally safe support.

“My message to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that are going through similar feelings and situations, is to find support in each other and to talk about it. Don't push it under the rug. We all are facing these issues and there's a reason behind it; we're not meant to fit into the beauty standards that society pushes onto us. We really need to embrace each other.”

For drag superstar Felicia Foxx, a proud Kamilaroi and Dhungutti sister girl from Campbelltown NSW, the path to loving herself and accepting her body has been a long one, with many twists and turns.

Growing up in a male-dominated Aboriginal family that was very masculine and athletic, Felicia struggled with both her body image and sexual identity.  

“My body image concerns started at a very young age. I always thought I was the little black sheep of the family and being the slim, straight up and down one wasn’t normal. I thought I had to portray the exact body type the men in my family portrayed.”

Simultaneously struggling with her sexual identity, “questioning whether I was gay or not,” Felicia says she felt like she didn’t fit in anywhere.

As she gained exposure to the Sydney LGBTQIA+ scene, “men in jock straps with big six packs,” Felicia’s body image issues were further fuelled.

“I always thought that my body wasn’t good enough or that I didn’t fit into the environment. I didn’t see myself portrayed in the image of what a gay male was supposed to look like.”

According to national eating disorder and body image charity the Butterfly Foundation, almost one in 10 Australians will experience an eating disorder with many more, like Felicia, experiencing body image concerns. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience body image issues at similar rates to other people in Australia, with 30% of young people—including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people – saying they’re very concerned about their body image.

Having body images issues significantly impacted Felicia’s life and she began to push her loved ones away.

“I didn't hang around with many people. I stopped putting myself in environments where I was paranoid I was going to be judged, even though I was most likely not going to be judged. I had it all in my head that I would be. I probably made myself more depressed by keeping myself locked away.” 

“I started to become everything that I wasn't. I wanted to portray an image of being more masculine, because I knew I didn't have a masculine body. I put on a façade.”

It was at this point, aged 16 , that Felicia began to develop disordered eating patterns as she desperately tried to put on weight to conform to what she perceived as a masculine body. 

“I would sit there and eat so much to the point I was sick. I thought it wasn’t normal to be as slim as I am, but it was! It really messed with my head emotionally.”

Felicia found it challenging to communicate what she was going through, particularly in a community where body and eating concerns were not something that were spoken about.

“I just kept it to myself for a very long time. I didn't want my family or friends to know that deep down inside I hated the way I looked. I've always put on this facade that I’m strong and not scared of anything. I didn't want them to see me as this weak person that couldn't face issues by themself.”

“Growing up in black families, body image issues and eating problems are never really talked about. It didn't come with a shame factor, it just wasn't spoken about, and wasn't really an issue.”

However, connecting with family and culture, among other things, helped Felicia on her journey to body acceptance.

“I was thankful for my Pop teaching me about my grandfather and the older fellas in our family. When I look back at photos of all the old fellas, they were skinny, straight up and down long-legged. They were built the exact same way that I am built.”

Finding support with a sexual health professional in an environment where there were no cultural barriers as to what she could share was also a key turning point for Felicia.

“Confiding in her was the best thing for me, because I was so comfortable already opening up about my sexual activity, I was able to open up about my body image issues as well. I knew she looked out for me in ways that my Mum and my Dad could have never looked out for me and told me things they wouldn’t have been able to.

“Having that cultural barrier there, and not knowing if it was okay to speak to your elders or your mob about it, made things challenging,” explains Felicia.

 

“I guess I felt culturally safe around her and I felt safe asking questions.”

Known and loved for her unique drag and performances that exude confidence and fearlessness, Felicia says it was the art of drag that ultimately made her learn to love herself and accept her body.

“Thank God for the art of drag!” she says.

“I remember I just searched the hashtag ‘body positivity’, and I came across a drag queen from London. She was skinny like me; she had no stockings on and had hairy legs. I remember seeing the dent in her chest and it was the exact same dent that I was born with.

“I just thought, ‘Oh my god, she's embracing everything about herself and using it in her expression of drag’. So why not try and do that with my own platform and get other people to love themselves just through being my unique self?”

Performing drag has allowed her to explore gender identity and her relationship with her body.

“I really looked at what I was lacking, and I lacked love for myself. I was always trying to find love and attention from other people when I really didn't give myself much love at all.”

“Doing drag for me has made me love myself immensely. Through performance I tell stories of body positivity. I'll undress myself on stage and I won't wear stockings. I used to be ashamed of my scars and the dent in my chest but now I just embrace them and my body through my drag. I even snatch my own wig off because who's to say a woman can't be beautiful if she has short hair or is bald?”

“It’s so important for me to go out and speak about my body issues and eating problems, because there might be another little Aboriginal boy out there who is experiencing the same thing as me. Our health is our number one issue, and it needs to be spoken about more in Aboriginal communities. We need to be educated around how our bodies work and how it is normal to feel the ways we feel.

“For Aboriginal people experiencing body image issues, reach out to someone from your family who you think could help and point you in the right direction. Make it a dinner time conversation that you have at the dinner table and bring it up to family, so we can make it better for all of our mob experiencing these issues in the future.”

#EveryBODYisDeadly was created with the help of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workers and people with lived experience. Butterfly’s Helpline counsellors, and Butterfly as a whole, continue to have cultural awareness training. The Butterfly National Helpline is free, confidential, open seven days a week, 8am-midnight AEST, and can be reached on 1800 33 4673, via webchat or email support@butterfly.org.au

To find out more about #EveryBODYisDeadly head to: https://butterfly.org.au/get-involved/campaigns/everybodyisdeadly/

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